Lebanese security personnel held hostage by two jihadi rebel groups based in Syria have appeared in a video warning that they will be killed by their captors unless militants from the Shiite Hezbollah movement that has been supporting Bashar al-Assad withdraws from Syria.
The release of the video on Saturday came as hopes faded for a breakthrough in negotiations between the Lebanese government and the kidnappers, a mix of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al-Qaeda-affiliate, and the self-styled Islamic State (IS), both of which hold two sets of hostages.
Last week, a jihadi with a British accent from IS murdered American journalist James Foley in a videotape released - as this one was - with an eye on spreading fear and drumming up recruits. Mr. Foley was held for nearly two years before his videotaped beheading, something that IS said was in retaliation for the US airstrikes that have partially rolled back the group's advances in northern Iraq.
Though IS is best known for its fight against Assad in Syria, and for its seizure of territory in northern Iraq this year and threats to wipe out the country's religious minorities like Christians and the Kurdish Yazidis, the Sunni militant group and its allies have also increasingly engaged in fighting inside Lebanon.
The more than 30 Lebanese hostages were captured earlier in the month during fighting between Syrian militants and the Lebanese army in the Sunni-populated town of Arsal. The kidnappers are believed to be hiding out with their hostages in the rugged, barren mountains to the east of Arsal, close to the border with Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most powerful rebel factions fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is deployed across much of Syria. Although Jabhat al-Nusra and IS are enemies and have fought each other for control of territory in northern and eastern Syria, they appear to have formed a tactical battlefield alliance in the mountains of east Lebanon. The two factions and other Syrian rebel groups have used the area as a staging ground for attacks against Syrian troops and militias loyal to the Assad regime in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus.
The video shows nine of the hostages, eight policemen and one soldier, sitting beneath an awning of blankets and in front of the black and white flag of Jabhat al-Nusra.
“I call on our parents and the people in the village to stop this apostate party [Hezbollah] from killing people,” says a soldier who identifies himself as Mahmoud Maarouf Hamiyah from the Shiite village of Taraya in the Bekaa Valley. “I ask for this apostate party to leave [Syria] because if they do not we are all going to be killed… They are killing the Sunnis in Syria. What is their business killing Sunnis?”
Hamiyah is likely a blood relative of the secretive Talal Hamiyah, also from Taraya and one of Hezbollah’s top military commanders and allegedly head of the party’s external operations unit.
Several of the hostages called upon their families and friends to block roads and demonstrate against Hezbollah’s presence in Syria.
“If you don’t leave Syria the people here are going to kill us,” says another unidentified hostage. “I am begging my family and all the people around and all the Shiites to know that the Party [Hezbollah] has no business there [in Syria]. Go and demonstrate against them because they are killing children.”
They say they are being treated well and that they had asked their captors permission to make the video. “There are no guns pointed at us to make us say what we are saying,” says one of the hostages.
However, the men looked tired and nervous and readily used the language of Jabhat al-Nusra and IS in describing Hezbollah, which means “Party of God”, as HizbuShaitan, or “the Party of the Devil”.
A delegation from the Muslim Scholars Committee, a grouping of Islamic clerics, has been attempting to mediate a resolution, so far without effect. Two policemen were released on August 17 but since then talks appear to have faltered.
The kidnappers reportedly are seeking not only Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria but also the release of Islamist prisoners in a Lebanese jail, including Imad Jumaa, a local IS leader whose arrest in Arsal on August 2 sparked the five days of clashes. The Lebanese government has signaled that it will not exchange Islamist prisoners for the security personnel, throwing into doubt a successful outcome to the crisis.